It took nearly one year before Puerto Rico finally acknowledged the number of deaths from Hurricane Maria was shockingly more than the 64 that they'd long claimed: 2,975. That's still many-fold less than a separate Harvard estimate. Why the uncertainty? It turns out, the task of evaluating how many were killed by the storm got mired in politics and doubt. Alberto Martinez is a professor of history in math and science at the University of Texas. He has his own estimate of deaths and explains why it's been so difficult to get at the facts.
Alberto Martinez: The government froze the number at 64 in early December. The researchers at Harvard have a higher bound estimate of 9,800 people at maximum that they envision might have died because of this. My estimate is it's actually based on deaths that actually have been certified and accounted by the Demographic Registry of Puerto Rico.
Sharyl: So if on a low end, the estimate was 64, and the high end estimate is 9,000, what is your estimate of deaths?
Alberto Martinez: I would say my ball park figure is 1,900 people.
Sharyl: Martinez says Harvard based its huge number, above 9,000, on a very small survey. His estimates instead take into account historical data. He found more people died in Puerto Rico last year than any time since the early 1940s. He also compared deaths in the month of September — when Maria hit — to other Septembers over the past decade.
Sharyl: When we're talking about hurricane-related deaths, I think the first thing we think of is some poor person swept away in the wind or the water. But we're talking about people who died as a result of things that happened because of the hurricane?
Alberto Martinez: Of course.
Sharyl: What are some examples? Alberto Martinez: For example, any of many people with chronic illnesses that require, oxygen, and oxygen could not be delivered. Many of them passed away. Hospitals didn't have electricity for a long time. Counting deaths, one counts the deaths that happened immediately upon the event, first couple days; and deaths that happened as the prolonged effect of an injury or a medical condition that was untreated.
Sharyl: You think the Department of Public Safety in Puerto Rico has maybe a vested interest in making the numbers seem as low as possible?
Alberto Martinez: I do. The director of the department of public safety is Hector Pesquera. By law, this should not be a part of his job. By law, counting mortality after natural disasters is a duty of the Demographic Registry in Puerto Rico, and yet, since the hurricane happened, he has controlled the information. And he and the governor commissioned the group at George Washington University to do a study.
Several groups raised questions about Puerto Rico’s unbelievably low number of deaths, 64, and demanded that records be made public. Then, in a report to Congress in over the summer, Puerto Rico quietly upped the number from 64 to its estimate of more than one thousand four hundred. Finally, at the end of August, the George Washington University study concluded the death toll was nearly 3,000. That’s more than 46 times higher than the initial government tally.
Sharyl: Why is it important for us to know, in general, the basic number of people who were killed as a result of Hurricane Maria?
Alberto Martinez: The basic number of people would affect our judgment of how good were the procedures that were put in place, whether they were at the national, island or federal level. They would help us in a future crisis or a catastrophe. These things have to be accounted for. And for some of these individuals, their jobs are at stake.
Sharyl: You were born in Puerto Rico and you're a frequent visitor of Puerto Rico. What do you see when you visit now, in the aftermath of Maria?
Alberto Martinez: Puerto Rico is back in business. So as long as you stay in a metropolitan area and you go to the standard visitors' areas, you'd find businesses are open. Still, there's many things that people who have lived there for decades will notice, which is there are still endless many traffic lights that are missing or hanging. There's businesses that have shut down. There is growing unemployment. Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans, family members, friends, have left for the mainland. There is a growing sense of frustration that the current political situation doesn't enable things to get better.
Hurricane Maria is now on record as one of the deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history. It just took nearly a year for that fact to be officially recognized.